Happy 87th, Sonny Rollins

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

I recall sitting in my stale, marijuana smelling bedroom in college with a stack of Sonny Rollins albums thinking “This is the greatest musician on earth or anywhere else.”  And I still think that today.  I recall what records I was listening to at that moment; “Sonny Rollins Volume 2,” Sonny Rollins: A Night At The Village Vanguard,” “Saxophone Colossus,” “Worktime,” “Way Out West,” Freedom Suite,” “Thelonious Monk-Brilliant Corners,” The Clifford Brown/Max Roach Quintet: On Basin Street,” and Kenny Dorham’s “Jazz Contrasts.”  Every humorous burst of smeared notes or hipper than hip long tones Sonny played on his tenor saxophone swung harder than anything I was accustomed to.

What struck me most about Sonny’s playing, whether it was on a solo recording or a project with Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Babs Gonzalez or John Coltrane was the humor he incorporated in his solos.

 

 

Sonny Rollins Performs
Sonny Rollins

There is the Buddhist like teacher/master student side to Sonny and there’s the jubilant, jokester who would quote “Camp Town Races” during Monk’s blues classic “Misterioso” and make it cook as much as the “serious” stuff.

Listen to “Sonny Rollins Plus Four” with Clifford Brown and Max Roach.  I can’t think of another modern jazz album that celebrates the joys of life as much as that record. It’s uplifting the way great gospel music is uplifting and this was during a time when many modern jazz players took themselves a tad more seriously than they should have. It’s a powerful testimony to the origins of jazz in a highly visceral sense.  I think of Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory when I listen to that recording.

Although I’m primarily a blues guitarist, Sonny Rollins has always been thee example of the most perfect musician in any genre of music.  A man, who at 87 years young still probably practices more than most musicians a third of his age.  An artists who knew what was hip before the media caught on.  Sonny played with Monk when critics dismissed  him as “some eccentric” for the beatnik crowd.  Sonny played in Miles Davis’ first solo bands, long before “Kind Of Blue” or “Sketches Of Spain” dazzled young baby-boomers.

We all know that romantic and timeless image of Sonny practicing on The Williamsburg Bridge in New York City.  That image stays with us because it exemplifies the greatest devotion a mere mortal can give to his music and how it must sound to the world around him.  Sonny has always reinvented himself, even if it meant taking long hiatuses from the cookie cutter music business.  I’ve had lengthy conversations with musicians all over the world about Sonny’s greatness.  We love you, Sonny Rollins.  With all of the turmoil happening in today’s world, I’m so happy to celebrate your 87th Birthday.

 

 

 

 

 

Walter Becker Remembered

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

 

It’s seldom that people like us have anyone to talk to.  Wives, no, girlfriends, no way, the jivers and movers in the music industry, not a chance.  Too often we have to keep our feelings about that great live Charlie Parker album with Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Curley Russell and Art Blakey to ourselves.  And that’s just fine. Who needs any kind of approval or attention when it comes to taste?

Then one or two persons tops comes along and they get and share our humor, our taste in movies, books and music and not much has to be said.  That’s what Walter Becker and Donald Fagen found in each other when they first met at Bard College in 1967.  And that’s what I found in both men in the 1990’s during my apprenticeship at Donald Fagen’s recording studio on the Upper East Side of New York City.

 

Walter-Becker
Walter Becker

 

I never got to know Walter the way I did Donald but there was this now mythical symmetry between them that doesn’t exist between most people.  Walter was very funny. I remember him entering the studio office, putting on a heavy Brooklyn accent and mocking one of the ultra-right winged engineers at the studio who drove everyone nuts. He’d then riffle through the plethora of CDs I’d bring on a daily basis during the production of Steely Dan’s “Two Against Nature.”  Although Becker and Fagen were always extremely kind to me, I could sense at times an antagonistic side, one that I could relate to and I enjoyed witnessing when they’d unleash it on a fellow engineer, musician or record company exec was wasn’t on the same page or trying to pull some bullshit. It was a way of warding off outsiders and dopes. It reminded me of the way Bob Dylan could cut someone down but more thoughtful and not as vicious.

Like Fagen, Walter knew everything about every recording I’d bring into the studio. We might disagree at times but it was enjoyable. To be slightly antagonistic myself, instead of throwing on a CD by Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Monk or Bird, I put on The Velvet Underground’s “Loaded” album. Walter flinched and said “I saw them when they first formed in some shithouse club in the village and they were  worst band I ever heard.” I laughed and slowly turned the music off and opted for some Sonny Stitt. Walter chided “Stitt was better on tenor than alto.”  I agreed, most of all, I had someone to talk to about this music who had a passion for it and could play it.  I had two people, Donald and Walter which is unheard of.

Despite the stresses of working for two perfectionist geniuses, I enjoyed the reaction I’d get during those breaks when Donald and or Walter would venture out of the control room, down the hall into the office. I carefully selected the music of the day from my vast collection at home each morning. If there was an artist we didn’t agree on, they would always recommend I check out another.  I didn’t have this with the often overly arrogant rock n, roll engineers who mostly hated jazz and blues.  “Buddy Guy is overrated and plays out of tune!” Walter and Donald said one hot summer afternoon as I blasted some of Buddy’s early Chess sides.  I was pissed off for a minute tops. I’ve always loved Guy’s frenetic energy and fret board abuse.  Walter then suggested I check out Fenton Robinson’s playing.  Robinson is a lesser known, more jazz-based blues guitarist and singer.  And so the next time I was in Tower Records, I grabbed as many Fenton Robinson records as I could afford. I studied those albums and my guitar playing got jazzier and more complex.  I thanked Walter as we listened to Robinson’s staccato laden arpeggios wailing through the studio halls.  I would often practice on a Gibson 335 that Larry Carlton donated to the studio with a hole punched through the body left in the office to keep my chops up.

During VH1’s “The Making Of Aja” documentary in 1997, I sat right outside of the live room as Donald, Walter, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, Paul Griffin and John Harrington played instrumental versions of “Peg,” “Black Cow,” and “Home At Last.”  Walter’s guitar playing was so soulful, funky and economical yet complex.  Every note he played was perfect and swung hard. Mixed with what Donald and the other cats were laying down, this was thee Steely Dan sound.  I knew a moment like this may not ever happen again and I’ll always be grateful to have been there.

I found my comrades in jazz nerdiness at last.  I wouldn’t call myself a friend of Walter’s per say the way I still call Donald a friend. He’d be in town to work on a project and then back home to Hawaii. But he left me with a ton of memories, lessons and laughter that I’ll take with me the rest of my days. Goodbye Walter and my deepest condolences to your family.

 

 

 

 

Live Music -Bill Watrous At The Farmer’s Market, Los Angeles, California.

By Devon “Doc” Wendell

There’s nothing more sublimely lyrical as the sound of Bill Watrous playing his trombone. It’s ethereal with a lush, round and warm tone. It’s wonderfully familiar in the traditions of jazz yet romantically mysterious in its sheer soul and magic that happens in the moment. He is thee trombone master.Those magic moments took place at The Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles on Friday night, August 11th as Bill Watrous played two sets for a packed house of adoring fans.  Watrous was joined by fellow trombonist Rob Stonebeck, Jennifer Leitham on bass, Randy Drake on drums and Andy Langham on keyboards. Both sets consisted of jazz standards such as “I’m Old Fashioned,” “It Could Happen To You” and “Blue Monk.” Watrous and Stonebeck would harmonize beautifully on the songs’ choruses or “heads.” On “Blue Monk,” Watrous scat sang a fantastically complex solo, dazzling the audience. Each band member got plenty of solo space during each composition throughout the evening.

watrousw
Bill Watrous

The band’s often hard and aggressive approach served as a unique contrast to Watrous’ tender and melodic style.  Randy Drake’s bebop-fueled drumming locked in with Jennifer Leitham’s virtuosic bass lines.  Andy Langham’s imaginative and spontaneous keyboard work features big block chords in the styles of Duke Ellington, Ahmad Jammal and Red Garland. Rob Stonebeck’s style came off as brash and flashy at times but Stonebeck’s range and skill level are incredible.  Watrous was at the center of it all, swinging in a way that’s rarely heard these days.  Even on a Latin flavored uptempo reading of “America The Beautiful,” Watrous explored every melodic and harmonic possibility.

Of course Bill Watrous is considered one of the greatest balladeers in the history of jazz, making Hoagie Carmichael’s “Skylark” a true highlight of the evening’s program.  Randy Drake’s brushwork was stellar as was Jennifer Leitham’s thematic bass solo.  Bill Watrous sang through his trombone like no one else can do. His solo was absolutely haunting. When speaking of the true ballad masters of jazz, many hear the names Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins and Miles Davis.  Watrous has always been right up there with them.  The vulnerability of his tone gets deep inside of your heart and stays there forever.  

The second set opened with a version of John Klenner and Sam M. Lewis’ standard “Just Friends.”  Keyboardist Andy Langham’s solo and comping were awe-inspiring. Langham’s knowledge of the history of jazz piano combined with a uniquely distinct style makes him one of the finest jazz piano stylists on the scene.  Jennifer Leitham has earned her place on the jazz scene as one of the most masterful and bold players on Earth.  Randy Drake’s drumming brings to mind such greats as Max Roach, Art Blakey and Roy Haynes without sounding derivative.  The entire band was swinging harder than life.

Bill Watrous is also a brilliant vocalist and it was a delight to hear him sing Sammy Cahn’s original lyrics to “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”  The band’s arrangement was closest to Chet Baker’s version of this classic ballad. Watrous and company demonstrated their versatility with a burning take on Jobim’s “Desafinado.”  Watrous’s solo cooked and displayed so much of what jazz is missing today; melody, dynamics, a sense of theme, harmony, soul and most of all, swing.  The show closed with Duke Ellington’s “C Jam Blues.”  Stonebeck showed off his own eclectic trombone chops.  Watrous and the entire band were in heaven, playing the music they love more than anything else.  This was the perfect way to end the show. Duke would’ve been proud.

This was one of the finest and purest jazz shows I’ve seen in many years.  Bill Watrous just gets better and better with age, cementing his place in America’s classical music known as jazz. And the band was perfect. The only down side was the loud mix on stage which was the fault of a sound man who is obviously more familiar with working on rock.  This wasn’t enough to slow down Watrous and the band for one second.  This was an evening of real jazz by the very best of the best.

 

Albert Collins Remembered

By Doc Wendell

 

I hate top ten lists or the concept of a “favorite” musician of any kind. It’s lazy and pedantic. With great jazz or blues players, an artist’s style is as unique as their fingerprints so making comparisons is impossible and a waste of time. As a guitarist, many people have asked me who my “favorite” players are. I usually ask, “What genre?”

All I can do is tell you the players that I love and I love Albert Collins. I’ve loved the Iceman for over 30 years now. Before I was even in high school, I found two records that would change my life forever, “Truckin’ with Albert Collins” and “Albert Collins & The Icebreakers-Live in Japan.

Albert Collins

 

Up until that time, most of the guitarists I had heard were either influenced by B.B. King or T-Bone Walker directly. Albert Collins’ style struck me as being avant-garde electric blues. His tone was sharp, piercing and irresistible. He played a Fender Telecaster with a Humbucker pickup, the ashtray cover and he tuned to an F minor chord. On top of that, he used a capo, sometimes as far up the neck of the guitar as the 12th fret, and he used his fingers and not a pick. I was young when I first heard Albert and when you’re young you try to emulate players. I got the tuning down. I turned the treble and reverb all the way up, got a big fat capo and I locked myself in my bedroom for days. I couldn’t get it. 30 years later and I still can’t.  I came to the realization that you could buy Albert’s gear and practice for a hundred years and never sound like him. This is just one of the reasons I love Albert.

Unlike a lot of other blues guitarists, Albert was able to capture his sound on record from the beginning of his career as a sideman with Texas tenor saxophonist Henry Hayes to his funk-filled records for Alligator and Pointblank/Virgin. Albert never made a bad album. There was great humor in his lyrics, often written by his wife Gwendolyn. “Master Card”, “Conversation with Collins”, “Snowed In” and “Too Many Dirty Dishes” are hilarious.  Stylistically, Albert wasn’t like Buddy Guy, Otis Rush or the Chicago players. Rhythmically, his roots came from the Texas Big Band swing blues which incorporated horns instead of harmonica players. Albert loved Hammond B3 organ players like Jack Mcduff and Jimmy McGriff and you can hear that influence in Albert’s rhythm comping. Albert also loved saxophone players like Illinois Jacquet and Big Jay Mcneely.  As far as blues recordings go, “Truckin’ with Albert Collins” (Originally released as “The Cool Sounds Of Albert Collins”) is perhaps the most experimental and original modern electric blues records to come out of the early ’60s. This album would go on to influence Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Robert Cray, Larry Carlton, Magic Sam, Earl Hooker, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jimmy Vaughan and generations of rock, blues and jazz six stringers all over the world. The album swings and is funky and even psychedelic in a way that no one had heard yet.  Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” and Driving South” are direct tributes to Albert’s “Thaw Out” and “Kool Aide” from those 1962 sessions.

I own every record Albert ever played on including his early work with Henry Hayes in 1958 and his guest appearance with Ike & Tina Turner on The Hunter album from 1969 and everything in between and after. All are essential listening.

In a live setting, Albert was king. He was the ultimate head cutter and he always had an incredible band behind him. I got to see Albert perform in New York at the old Lonestar Roadhouse and Tramp’s.  You never knew what was going to come blaring out of that Telecaster. I recall one gig at The Lonestar . I got there early and along the wall, Branford Marsalis stood casually talking to some friends. At one of the tables near the Stage were members of Metallica and at the bar was just about ever prominent blues musician in New York standing there, anxiously awaiting ‘The Houston Twister.”  The whole damn scene was there. Albert blew everyone away as he walked out of the club with his 500 foot guitar cable in the midst of an ear shattering guitar solo. The rhythm section of Johnny B. Gayden on bass, Debbie Davies on rhythm guitar and Soko Richardson on drums kept that gutbucket Texas shuffle in full force as Albert hammered that one note that took everyone present to heaven.

I was just about to head to work at Donald Fagen’s NYC studio on November 24th, 1993 when a friend told me that Albert had passed away. I called in sick and cried into my pillow thw whole day and through the night. Albert taught me to find my own sound and to “not just copy B.B. and Jimi.” After that sad November day, I would never again try to copy a guitar solo note for note. I found that I had something to say and my own way of saying it, like Albert. That’s the greatest musical lesson of all. I miss you, Albert.

 

 

 

Review: Billy Bates -(a.ka. a.v. slim)

By Doc Wendell

 

Okay, as a blues musician myself, I bitch a lot about the lack of pure blues out today.  The blues market is saturated with hard rock guitar shredders who don’t trust in or understand the subtleties and deep nuances only found in real deep blues.

Bill Bates 2

Bill Bates

Who would think that one of the purest blues artists I’d hear in a long time would come out of Los Angeles? Bill Bates’ music is a breath of fresh air for us true blues lovers.  His self titled debut album “Billy Bates a.ka. a.v. slim” features some superb, deep rooted Chicago-style blues; some of the finest available today. Bates is not new to the blues. He’s played in Cadillac Zack’s band and has backed up such iconic blues idols as Lowell Fulson, Elmore James Jr. and Big Jay McNeely, to name only a few.

On this recording, Bates is backed by Mark Vasapolli on drums, Kenny Huff, bass, Mike Hightower, bass, Mike Simone, rhythm guitar, Rob Stone, harp & vocals, Malcolm Lukens, organ and piano and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin, guitar & vocals.

Bates demonstrates some tasty yet masterful blues guitar leads like on the instrumental “Lucky You“, and “Tanya” and he also shows that he understands Chicago blues rhythm and  harmony in the styles of the late Eddie Taylor and Jimmy Rogers. Bates includes two of Rogers’ compositions, “You Don’t Know” and “Left Me With A Broken Heart.” Bates’ harp playing, blues crooning partner in crime Rob Stone adds some soulful vocals and fantastic harmonica to both Rogers’ songs as well as T-Bone Walker’s “Mean Old World“, Doc Clayton’s “I’ve Got To Find My Baby” and Bates’ own “It’s The Evening Blues.”  Bates sings with a pained and  powerful original vocal style. His vocal performances on “Good Things” and “Left Me With A Broken Heart will give you chills indeed. This is the real thing. Bates’ lead guitar style on “Lucky You”,Tanya”, and Jimmy Dawkins’ “Hippies Playground” is slightly reminiscent of Earl Hooker, Otis Rush and Dawkins himself, but there’s a unique and deeply personal quality to everything Bates plays.

His slide work on Elmore James’ “Slim’s Contribution To Jazz” burns and is true to the original. It’s obvious that Bates has done his homework.  Rockin’ Johnny Burgin adds some fine vocals to the T-Bone Walkers’ classics “Mean Old World”  and “Party Girl.” The version of “Mean Old World” is closer to Little Walters’ than Walkers’.

The music on this album transports you to Theresa’s Lounge on The South Side Of Chicago at 2:00am. You can even smell the rot- gut whiskey and jar of pickled pigs feet in he air. All blues aficionados as well as newcomers to the music should get a copy of this album immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Dave Jordan & The NIA -“No Losers Tonight”

By Doc Wendell

 

There’s no mistaking pure, untampered New Orleans music, whether it be jazz, blues, country, Zydeco, rock n’ roll and everything in between.  Musicians from other places may try their asses off to get that feeling but there’s nothing like the real thing.  Dave Jordan & The NIA ( The Neighborhood Improvement Association) serve up a heathy dose of no-nonsense blues, rock and country soul with their album “No Losers Tonight” which takes the listener straight to the heart of The Crescent City.

The Neighborhood Improvement Association is comprised of Dave Jordan, lead vocals, acoustic guitar, Mike Doussan, Electric and acoustic guitars, background vocals, Will Repholz, bass, Andre Bohren, drums, percussion and backing vocals, Chris Plyant, drums and Harry Hardin, violin with special guests Bill Malchow, piano, organ, Wurlizer, Joe Armitage, electric guitar, backing vocals, Gregory “Wolf” Hodges, electric guitar, Rurik Nunan, violin and Jake Eckert, Electric guitar, tambourine.

DAVE JORDAN

 

The album kicks off with a hard, rollicking up-tempo blues rocker “Southern Girl” as well as the Southern- fried title track “No Losers Tonight” and “Smoke.”  Jordan’s rough, whiskey soaked vocals evoke emotions of both joy and sorrow and sets the tone for this album immediately.  Mike Doussan’s guitar leads are stinging and masterful. Harry Hardin’s violin screams out passionately and doubles up the carefully crafted melody lines along with the guitars. Bill Malchow adds some tasty Wurlizer comping to “Southern Girl” and “Smoke.”  The Rhythm section is tight and soulful.

“Come A Little Closer Babe” is one of the most sincerely beautiful ballads to surface in any genre of music in a long time. This is without a doubt a true album highlight.  Jordan’s vocal performance will bring tears to your eyes and the band compliments his every nuance with a wonderful thematic sensibility. Bill Malchow’s piano dances lovingly around the hypnotic melody line.

Pontchartrain” is a stellar blues ballad. Mike Doussan’s lead guitar is reminiscent of Carlos Santana and Eddie Hazel at their best. This is mournful music wrapped in love. Dave Jordan’s lyrics are poignant and poetic. He paints a vivid picture of time fading into the midst on Louisiana’s mighty Lake Pontchartrain. This song will get you missing Pontchartrain even if you’ve never been there. This is a majestic piece of Louisiana soul.

“This Time Around” and “Boot To Your Neck” kick down the door and rock hard. You can smell the stale beer and marijuana burning in the moist New Orleans air. “Once I Had A Lover” is a ballad that deals with pain, loss and self exploration. The song was written by Dave Jordan and Mike Doussan. Harry Hardin’s violin work fits the song like a glove.

Dave Jordan’s ballads just don’t let up. They tug at your heart and stay with you instantly and forever. “Baby I’m Gone” is no exception. Jordan isn’t afraid to take a hard look inward and show his vulnerability.  Jordan’s and Doussan’s guitar work is tender and sublimely melodic as is Bill Malchow’s piano stylings.

The album closes with the haunting “Dreams So Real”, a blues-based minor key dirge that conjures up the mood of a long New Orleans daydream that you just can’t shake off easily.

Dave Jordan & The NIA’s – “No Losers Tonight” is New Orleans. This is “roots music” or “Americana” ( as they call it in the Northern cities) at its very best.  I listen to so many artists release overproduced records trying to capture a sound that come to Dave Jordan & The NIA naturally. Jeff Watkins’ production is genuine and loving.  Do not let this one pass you by.

 

 

Doc In New Orleans

By Doc Wendell

 

I can still feel the rain-kissed breeze traveling vastly across The Mississippi River down onto Decatur Street; The daydream inducing intoxication of the ancient Cherrybark oak trees and the sad, wistful Spanish moss tempering the rhythms of the adolescent street drummers banging furiously on plastic buckets, lost in that deep Southern mid-day funk found nowhere else on Earth.  New Orleans.  A man like me could disappear forever here. Yes, that sounds perfect.  You’re expected to be something or someone in Los Angeles. I no longer have the energy to present any image of myself to anyone anymore. As a massive crowd passed me on a late Saturday morning on Jackson Square moving towards St. Louis Cathedral, it dawned on me that I could get lost in the sea of already slightly drunken faces for an eternity with my lady by my side. And no one would know.

Time and nature both move at their own pace in “The Big Easy.”  The music is a soundtrack of America in all of its glorious, unabashed splendor.  None of that jive rock- blues, smooth jazz, or fake bop here. Frenchmen Street will not allow any of that. No amateur posturing at all. I never thought this could be.  I was seeking total anonymity of being and it was waiting for me with its skeleton key in hand.  I didn’t even want to take notes on the various bands and musicians I witnessed.  I wanted to live the music, take it all in and not report on it in under 200 words.  My sweetheart and I wandered from club to club, chowing down on shrimp and grits at The Maison while listening to a sprightly young Traditional Jazz band paying tribute to the late, great Sidney Bechet. The tenor saxophonist and trumpeter both cooked beyond belief.  Next we moved onto to the world famous Louisiana Music Factory record store across the street where local blues great Little Freddie King was just finishing off an in-store set. The more immersed I became in the whole scene, the more my identity melted away. suddenly a torrential rain storm blasted Frenchmen Street like a cannonball.  We darted over to a club called Vaso for more real blues and a dry refuge.  As we attempted to shake off the rain and listened to what looked like a 16 year old boy playing like T-Bone Walker, a fallen down, stone drunk woman seated next to me asked me for some spare change to get something to eat. We stayed for a few more numbers until we witnessed what looked like Katrina all over again outside.  It was like a monsoon. Even the smell of the unforgiving rain felt ancient but we had to think quickly and so we jumped in a cab, drenched to the bone, but alive. A new alive.

The rain had washed more of what I felt I had to be away forever and the feeling was sheer ecstasy. Ghosts haunt every twist and turn of the city and I wanted to join them with one last joyous funeral procession.  I contemplated what it would be like to exist with no physical form, no name, no legacy,  just a faint feeling of something unknown that passes too quickly to process. The voodoo priestesses and grand illustrious cemeteries understood this desire all too well. What lead me to this frame of mind felt like a near nervous breakdown before arriving in The Crescent City. How I got there is no longer relevant. I found a new realm of survival to chase all the way down. Everything else now is just circus peanuts and gravy.

I left New Orleans with a calm I hadn’t felt in 5, maybe 6 years. What one might define as death breathed new life into me. Actual death always seems to be waiting for me in Los Angeles but I knew I would return someday soon to the city where life and death dance together in that dance of the gods.